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A Closer Look: Wael Qadour

Global Exchange

The Middle East/United States Playwright Exchange is an ongoing reciprocal opportunity for playwrights from the Middle East-North Africa-Gulf region to interface with US playwrights—particularly those of Middle Eastern origin. This season, the inaugural exchange will feature The Confession by Wael Qadour. Wael sat down with Director/Playwright/Founder of Maia Directors, Kareem Fahmy to give audiences a closer look into his play, his process, and to talk about how he addresses the current situation in Syria as a theater maker.  

KAREEM FAHMY: Is this the first of your plays to be translated into English? What was the translation process like? The translator, Hassan Abdulrazzak is a wonderful playwright in his own right. Were you familiar with his work? 

WAEL QADOUR: This isn’t the first time one of my plays has been translated into English. The Sundance Institute did an internal translation of an earlier draft of The Confession in 2016. The Goethe Institute did one into German that year as well, since it was being read in German theaters. Same thing with French, courtesy of Antoine Vitez Maison.

I try to keep an open dialogue going with the English translators before and during the translation process in hopes of hitting on a different viewpoint on theatrical discourse and language. I try keeping an eye on the changes between the two languages, or how their idioms and colloquialisms affect what the characters say.

I was very happy that Hassan Abdulrazzak translated the play. I was aware of some of his work previously and had hoped he’d be in the room with us.

KAREEM: I love that this play is deeply in conversation with Ariel Dorfman's thrilling play Death and the Maiden (funny story: the last time I acted in a play, when I was still in college, was in a production of Death and the Maiden. I spent 35 minutes tied to a chair and gagged. I never acted again!) How did you first come across Dorfman's play and what about it made you want to create your own response to it? 

WAEL: Truth be told, I chose Death and the Maiden because I thought it took a “subtraction by necessity” approach to dramaturgy. Before the revolution, Omar, a character in the play, chooses to direct Death and the Maiden in Damascus (it had been performed several times before then). The company sees the play as a slap in the face of tyranny. However, it also sees it as an invitation towards forgiveness—a forgiveness not based on forgetting, but on understanding the past. Once the revolution starts, the company takes a break from rehearsals. Omar (the director, and the role of the lawyer Gerardo) and Haya (who plays Paulina Salas, his wife) join peaceful protests before her little brother is kidnapped and tortured to death. Haya begins condoning violent anti-regime action, carrying her philosophy to rehearsals. This new Haya is seen as being unsuitable for the role of Paulina.

Dorfman himself says that the story cannot stay on-course beneath a dictatorship, writing, “When a dictator is in power, it is impossible for a woman to arrest a man in her home and subject him to personal trial, as happened in the newspaper article, published in a different time, that I read. But it can in a country transitioning towards democracy, where the wounds of many Chileans have yet to heal, where those guilty walking free look over their shoulders and wonder when their time is up.”

So, the internal drama reveals deep contradictions and conflicts among the Syrian characters. All this occurs in the presence of actor Akram, a former regime political prisoner, who today plays the Dr. Miranda, who represents the "executioner". On the other side, Jalal, uncle of Omar, is the officer who has long-served the regime. A meeting between jailer and prisoner breaks away from the original Dorfman play, escalating the conflict.

KAREEM: A key character in the play is a theater director. You yourself are a director as well as being a playwright. How much of your experience as a director informed your writing of this play? 

WAEL: Omar and I almost have the same questions. As a theater maker, and over the past years, I have noticed that most theatrical performances that have tackled the current situation in Syria have been overwhelmingly direct and emotional, which resulted in largely forgettable works. Other performances have attempted to avoid the political angles of the issue, focusing instead on its humanistic ramifications, thus tackling themes like absence, displacement and memory. Some performances have disregarded the situation altogether.

Throughout all of this, one question has haunted us: How can one write and direct modern theatrical works of measurable artistic value that also remain in line with the day-to-day lives of the masses? I refer, of course, to works that tackle the current situation while still acknowledging the sociopolitical requirements of the nation and region as a whole; works that do not fall prey to tactlessness but that remain faithful to the sociopolitical climate; and, last but not least, works that pay homage to the larger sociocultural contexts whilst still remaining accessible to their target audiences.

KAREEM: Food comes up a lot in this play. As a fellow Middle Easterner I see the fixation. It so pervades our culture! In many scenes characters are preparing food, talking about food, consuming food. What does food/eating represent for you? 

WAEL: This is the first time I have used food as a dramatic metaphor in my work. In the case of Jalal, his fascination with food and his insistence on preparing it for himself is a leftover from when he exercised his authority. At the same time, it emphasizes how high his senses are. Jalal chooses to be a vegetarian, but forces those he shares living space with (Radwan, Omar) and his dinner guests (Haya, Akram) to do the same. At the show we did recently in Beirut, the director and the actors added many sensual and dramatic details by acting during the preparation and eating of dinner. This is followed by Omar throwing all the food to the floor.

KAREEM: There's a line that made me laugh out loud. "It's a long play. An hour and a half." Your play is 50 pages long – short by American standards. Do you actually think that 90 minutes is "long"? 

WAEL: Haya’s line reflects common sentiment in Syria, which considers a one hour running time ideal for plays. Syrian audiences are generally unused to spending more than that at the theater. That includes Jalal, who requests a play at the dinner.

KAREEM: At the heart of the play seems to be a question about morality, and how slippery it can be. You write: "Someone treated you with cruelty and injustice. Today you are doing the same thing. And tomorrow someone else will do the same thing. The cycle of violence will keep turning and no one could stop it." What does morality mean to you in regards to what's been happening in Syria these past years? What do you see at the outcome of all of this destruction and violence?

WAEL: The line you’re referring to is from Death and the Maiden. I adopt it completely. I don’t think anyone has the right to speak on behalf of the victims, to silence them. I believe that no one has the right to exempt any criminal from accountability. At the same time, I think the cycle of violence needs to end somewhere, and that all of us must at some point realize that justice is inherently going to fall short. In the short term, justice allows victims to retrieve some of their rights. On the longer scale of things, exacting justice decreases the possibility of past wrongs repeating to the lowest degree.

If you enjoyed this interview, you may be interested in:
A Closer Look: Raeda Taha
Arab Voices: Stories of Palestine